By Zac Baker, for AZPM
The Tucson City Council voted this week to relocate homeless people who have been living in a downtown park for a year and a half.
The camp, called “Safe Park” by its occupants, includes the sidewalk along Veinte de Agosto Park at Church Avenue and Congress Street. A self-described camp leader said the group’s presence protests the criminalization of homelessness in Tucson.
Jon McLane, Safe Park resident who refers to himself as its director, said that insufficient community-provided resources, yet being cited for public urination or breaking curfew in a park is how the homeless are criminalized.
The City Council’s decision allows them to select one or multiple unused city properties to replace Veinte de Agosto Park, said Steve Kozachik, a city councilman who represents part of downtown.
In December, U.S. District Judge David Bury ordered that police cannot force anyone there to leave the area to protect the Safe Park members’ right to free speech. City officials are appealing the injunction, and will meet with the judge on Tuesday.
Kozachik said the homeless people affiliated with Safe Park have taken the judge’s decision beyond its original intention.
“This has gone way beyond free speech,” Kozachik said. “This is not expressive anymore, this is facilitative, and it’s facilitating living. It’s camping out.”
Michael Keith, CEO of Downtown Tucson Partnership, said many downtown businesses are adamant that something change soon. He said that business owners have complained to him about aggressive panhandling, public urination, and trash as a result of the group.
Kozachik wants to strike a balance between helping the homeless and protecting the ever-growing downtown area.
“We have invested far too much in revitalizing the downtown core to allow it to turn into a campsite,” he said. “But, these things can’t happen independently of one another because there are people with legitimate needs down there”
If the judge lifts the court order, Kozachik plans to give those in Safe Park a warning that relocation is coming. He also wants to send in a combination of law enforcement officers with mental health training to help those living there.
“We're not just going down there will billy clubs and rousting people,” he said. “Give them a legitimate opportunity to get into the services that they need. Those who say no, then we will have, with the judge’s ruling, the authority to move them out.”
Representatives from the city and other community organizations have visited the park on more than one occasion, including last week, to educate the homeless about what resources are available to them, said Peggy Hutchison, CEO of Primavera Foundation. She said that a fundamental problem is that most participants do not know about all of the help offered in Tucson.
Hutchison said she takes issue with the setup of the group’s demonstration.
“From a health perspective and from a human rights perspective, it’s very disturbing to me that someone would have to sleep in a box that looks like a coffin,” she said.
Hutchison also said that all sides of the issue need to come together and know that there is not going to be a quick fix for an issue like homelessness.
“I think the current status quo is unacceptable, and I would like everybody to agree on that,” she said. “You know, with all the different perspectives, can’t we agree that this is really not right? It’s not right for anyone… and so we’ve got to figure out another vision.”